Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Is ‘Cancel Culture’ Making Advertising Less Funny?

Production Company
Los Angeles, USA
Voices from the creative, production, and comedy industries speak to LBB’s Adam Bennett about the state of their craft

Has advertising lost its funny bone? That’s the impression one might get by flicking through the winners of top awards shows over the past few years, with purpose-driven and ‘worthy’ work often coming up trumps in place of more irreverent ads. 

In spite of this, however, our love of rib-tickling commercials hasn’t diminished. Ask anyone from across the industry about their favourite-ever ad and, more often than not, you’ll hear about one which made them laugh. Be it John West’s enduringly hilarious salmon bear fight, Wendy’s’ iconic ‘where’s the beef?’, or the off-the-wall absurdity of the Cadbury Gorilla, comedy and advertising have long been entwined. 

So if it’s true that advertising and comedy have fallen out of love, what gives? For some, there’s a simple answer - cancel culture. In an increasingly intolerant world, the argument goes, brands are less willing to take the risks on which great comedy is built. Instead, they’re more likely to resort to ‘safe’ ideas which won’t test the forgiveness of their audiences. It’s a dynamic perhaps best summarised by the legendary Nick Cave, who asserted in a beautifully-written blog post that cancel culture is ‘the antithesis of mercy’. 

But is that really the case? To find out, LBB sat down with director and founder of Ruckus Films JJ Adler, Five by Five’s creative director Ravi Beeharry, and comedian Ash James. 

What Even Is ‘Cancel Culture’?

One of the reasons this debate has become so thorny has been the difficulty of pinning down a definition of ‘cancel culture’ as a term - and a definitive agreement on whether it actually exists in the first place. 

“For me, the term ‘cancel culture’ has been co-opted and re-co-opted to the point that it’s lost all meaning”, says JJ. “At this point it’s just a bomb you lob at someone either because you don’t like what they said or you don’t like how they reacted to what you said. People instantly get their backs up before any meaningful conversation can even begin”.

But, she notes, the relationship between cancel culture and good comedy may not be as direct as many make out. “If that relationship were real, I’d question the effectiveness of cancel culture given how much great comedy is still being made - even in ads”. 

According to Ravi, however, there is something of a fear factor for brands in the modern media landscape. “When I was at school we used to have a saying: ‘Chat shit get clapped’. That was the rule of ‘the streets’, but it’s exactly what brands face today if they put out work which is too controversial for whatever reason”, he says. 

As a result, he says, comedy is becoming one of the areas where marketers are becoming more inclined to play it safe. “Do I think that brands' aversion to being 'cancelled' is having an impact on the kinds of ads they want to make? I do, yeah”, he says. “And comedy is one of those things which has slipped off the menu a little bit”. 

And yet the wide-ranging nature of the debate on cancel culture makes it hard to ascertain its true impact on comedy. “It’s often a term given to the act of preventing harm”, says Ash, “but it has definitely become weaponised to the point that mistakes and apologies are losing all meaning across society. Like when an athlete tweeted something stupid when they were a teenager - what is the point of highlighting that just to get upset about it? But I’m not sure it’s true to say that comedy itself is being cancelled. The most high profile ‘cancelled’ comedians are high-profile because they’re still working. The truth is that if you’re funny enough, you won’t really be cancelled”. 

Does Comedy Need To Be Offensive?

At the heart of the argument around cancel culture and comedy is the idea that offence - or at least the risk of offence - is a necessary ingredient for quality comedy. But is that really true? 

“I don’t think so at all, especially not when we’re talking about ads”, says JJ. “In fact, by design, a good ad should achieve very broad appeal. So being offensive to this group or that is no virtue. When an ad manages to pull off something a huge swath of people across all walks can agree is funny, that’s the winner.”

Ravi, for the most part, agrees. “I think, like with so many other things, comedy in ads is a reflection of comedy in our culture more broadly”, he says. “This is a very British - and very personal - perspective, but if I think of influential comedy in the 90s and early 2000s I’m thinking of Ali G, Little Britain, Bo Selecta and Fonejacker - stuff that is very edgy. Whereas now we’re looking at Mrs Brown’s Boys and Miranda… yeah. It’s safe, and perhaps it's no wonder that we see advertising taking a similar tone”. 

But for Ash, the broader culture of comedy is better off without the fear of causing offence. “I think you start getting into dangerous territory when you police comedy by whatever topics are considered taboo today”, he says. “I’ve always thought that Doug Stanhope had one of the best takes on this, when he said: 

“There’s no such thing as laughing at something you shouldn’t. You should laugh everywhere you can find even the slightest glimmer of humour. Life is a series of heartache, tragedy and injustice punctuated by a few cocktails and that one trip to Reno. The more you can laugh at the ugliest parts, the better off you are”. 

“For me, that’s the healthiest approach you can take. I totally agree that there’s a place for comedy in the mainstream and that it’s important, but alternative comedy is just as valid. If that were to be policed out of existence by the fear of offence, all comedy would suffer for it”. 

What Do We Really Want?

If it’s true that comedy - and advertising - is a reflection of wider society, perhaps that’s an explanation as to why ‘purpose-driven’ work is performing so well in terms of awards compared to more lighthearted campaigns. 

“As an industry we’ve moved into more action-oriented work, thought provoking work, and work which wants to help change society for the better”, notes Ravi. “We’ve gone all grown-up, serious and purpose driven”. 

And yet on the other hand, the seriousness of our times has many of us calling out for comedy as an antidote. “Clearly, we’re living through an era of what feels like just relentless change”, says JJ. “Which is why comedy can be such a useful tool for brands. We need reminders not to take ourselves so seriously or just moments to laugh at the absurdity all around us.”

Maybe, then, brands don’t need to save the world before they start being funny. Perhaps, when all is said and done, there’s plenty of room for both. 

More News from Ruckus Films
Work of the Week
Work of the Week: 15/03/24
The Directors
The Directors: Tim Wilkime
Work from Ruckus Films
The Boys
Tim Wilkime
Bowen Yang's Phone Case